On 10 August 2019, Yemeni southern separatists claimed they had seized Aden, a strategic port city in the south of the republic which has been the seat of the internationally-recognised government since Houthi fighters took over Sanaa in 2014.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC), while not entering the presidential compound, reportedly secured the entrances and exits to the presidential palace and other key infrastructure after days of fighting with forces loyal to Abdu Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi‘s government. The clashes left 40 people dead and 260 injured, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
In a video circulated on social media, Yemeni Interior Minister Ahmed Al-Maysari called the STC’s move a “successful coup,” claiming it had “destroyed what’s left of this country’s sovereignty.”
Saudi forces, which back the Hadi government, said they retaliated and successfully hit STC positions, while the separatists eventually agreed to calls for a ceasefire and talks with Hadi. At the same time, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led Arab Coalition, Colonel Turki al-Maliki, said military attacks would continue unless the separatist forces withdrew. Meanwhile, an emergency summit is set to take place in Riyadh, although no date has been set and the summit is contingent upon the STC’s withdrawal.
The flare-up in Aden is yet another blow in the four-years-and-counting war between Houthi rebels and the exiled President Hadi’s regime. The conflict has led the country to the brink of famine, resulting in a casualty count into the tens of thousands, with 80 percent of the population in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
The Houthis, who have received support from Iran, maintain a grip on key central and northern provinces and have stepped up attacks on Saudi cities in response to the Coalition’s incessant aerial bombing campaign. “Hadi and his government have [had] major problems with legitimacy,” says Middle East and North Africa analyst for Strafor Ryan Bohl. “And now they have even bigger problems with legitimacy. Whether or not Hadi can survive as president is an open question.”
Both the STC and Hadi’s government have been part of the coalition that is fighting Houthi rebels in the north, but their rift comes down to long-standing grievances in the south. Clashes between the two in Aden last year claimed at least 36 lives after three days of battles. Separatist leaders said the attack followed a missile strike on southern forces by the Houthis; the STC believes Al-Islah, an Islamist party allied to the Hadi government, was complicit in the attack.
The southern separatist movement is a coalition of several groups seeking secession from North Yemen. “The movement stems from legitimate grievances of exclusion from power and resources,” explains Sama’a Al-Hamdani, Yemen Analyst and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “That said, there are separatist factions today that support president Hadi and the STC is the youngest such branch that is dominant on the Adeni ‘street.’ They are also well-armed as a result of the Arab Coalition’s war against the Houthis.”
South Yemen was an independent state between 1967 and 1990. Although it has since been unified with the North, there has been unrest amongst its population, which resulted in a short war in 1994. The STC, established in 2017, accuses Hadi’s government of mismanagement; according to the STC’s own website, the separatists since 1994 have lamented the forced retirement of its military personnel, police and civil servants, as well as the appropriation of state positions by North Yemenis. Under reunification, factories in the south were forced out of business and vast swaths of land were confiscated, while meaningful investment has failed to materialise in that part the country; whatever investment did trickle in served only to benefit northern elites. Unemployment remains high and profits from oil also go to the north, even though 80 percent of the country’s oil is located in the south.
The UAE has been backing the southern separatist movement as a local ally or proxy while slowly pulling its own resources from the conflict over the last weeks. The STC has been one of the most potent of all the southern groups and aligns with several Emirati objectives, including taking part in anti-Qatari operations within Yemen, explains Bohl.
The STC’s motivations as part of the pro-Hadi coalition have been limited to ejecting Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, as well as the Houthis, from the south. “But they were never willing to put the bulk of their forces on the front lines against the Houthis,” says Bohl “and they started to chase their own objective, which is eventually the restoration of something like South Yemen.” Whether that objective is achieved through outright secession or autonomy is somewhat open, he adds. Ultimately, however, Bohl believes the STC simply want a seat at the negotiating table.
“The STC have made it a point to state that they do not support a coup, per se,” says Al-Hamdani, “but rather are looking to assume official positions and control of the cities they operate in, namely Aden.”
The think tank International Crisis Group warned the recent skirmishes could create a “civil war within a civil war,” warning that if tensions cannot be eased in Aden, there is a risk they will spread within the south, drawing other southern forces that have been fighting the Houthis along the Red Sea coast, as well as Islah-aligned forces from northern governorates.
Outside pressure, however, could see a deal struck between the two sides. “I don’t believe that [Saudi Arabia and the UAE] will disagree over the necessity of a power-sharing deal between the STC and the Hadi government,” says Al-Hamdani, “I do, however, think that tensions are running high between Hadi’s government and the UAE,” adding that the UAE doubts the Yemeni government is capable of governing and continues to create separate alliances on the ground that contradict Saudi Arabia’s professed “unabated support” for the “legitimate government.” The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will have to decide whether to continue its uncritical support for Hadi’s government or to use this pressure from the UAE as an opportunity to induce reforms within Hadi’s government, explained Al-Hamdani.
As far as the Houthis are concerned, Bohl says, Aden’s so-called coup works “to their advantage to a certain extent, in that it’s always good to have your mutual enemies fighting one another. But aside from taking military pressure off the Houthis, and perhaps making them look like a more credible force in the eyes of the average Yemeni, Bohl says the infighting between the STC and the Hadi government does not provide the Houthis too many opportunities to make gains and that they are unlikely to push back significantly in the south.
Meanwhile, as talks are yet to be confirmed and each side’s position remain entrenched, humanitarian staff are being pulled from Aden amid concerns that a new front to the conflict could be opening up. “It is quiet now, but people are still worried. We don’t know where matters are heading,” said one Aden resident, speaking to Reuters. With the latest developments on the battlefield potentially affecting the conflict, both Yemenis and observers are ever more uncertain as to the future direction of the country.